owning up to failure
HUMILIATION AND VIRILITY
McLemee's reviews, essays and interviews have appeared in The
New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston
Globe, The Nation, Newsday, The Common
Review and numerous other publications including insidehighered.com,
where this article first appeared. For more of Scott, check
out his blog.
1939, the French anthropologist Michel Leiris published a memoir
called Manhood in which he undertook an inventory of
his own failures, incapacities, physical defects, bad habits
and psychosexual quirks. It is a triumph of abject self-consciousness.
And the subtitle, “A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce
Order of Virility,” seems to heighten the cruelty of the
author’s self-mockery. Leiris portrays himself as a wretched
specimen: machismo’s negation.
in fact the title was not ironic, or at least not merely ironic.
It was a claim to victory. “Whoever despises himself,
still respects himself as one who despises,” as Nietzsche
put it. In an essay Leiris wrote when the book was reissued
after World War II, he described it as an effort to turn writing
into a sort of bullfight: “To expose certain obsessions
of an emotional or sexual nature, to admit publicly to certain
deficiencies or dismays was, for the author, the means –
crude, no doubt, but which he entrusts to others, hoping to
see it improved – of introducing even the shadow of the
bull’s horn into a literary work.”
that standard, Leiris made the most broodingly taciturn character
in Hemingway look like a total wuss.
comment about passing along a technique to others -- “hoping
to see it improved” -- now seems cringe-making in its
own way. Leiris was addressing a small audience consisting mainly
of other writers. The prospect of reality TV, online confessionals,
or the industrialized production of memoirs would never have
crossed his mind. He hoped his literary method -- a kind of
systematic violation of the author's own privacy -- would develop
as others experimented with it. Instead, the delivery systems
have improved. They form part of the landscape Wayne Koestenbaum
surveys in Humiliation, the latest volume in Picador’s
Big Ideas/Small Books series.
a poet and essayist, is a professor of English at the City University
of New York Graduate Center and a visiting professor in the
painting department of the Yale School of Art. The book is an
assemblage of aphoristic fragments, notes on American popular
culture and its cult of celebrity, and reflections on the psychological
and social dynamics of humiliation – with a few glances
at how writing, or even language itself, can expose the self
to disgrace. It’s unsystematic, but in a good way. Just
because the author never quotes Erving Goffman or William Ian
Miller is no reason to think they aren’t on his mind.
“I’m writing this book,” he says early on,
“in order to figure out – for my own life’s
sake – why humiliation is, for me, an engine, a catalyst,
a cautionary tale, a numinous scene, producing sparks and showers
. . . Any topic, however distressing, can become an intellectual
romance. Gradually approach it. Back away. Tentatively return.”
experience of humiliation is inevitable, short of a life spent
in solitary confinement, and I suppose everyone ends up dishing
it out as well as taking it, sooner or later. But that does
not make the topic universally interesting. The idea of reading
(let alone writing) almost two hundred pages on the subject
will strike many people as strange or revolting. William James
distinguished between “healthy mindedness” (the
temperament inclined to “settl[ing] scores with the more
evil aspects of the universe by systematically declining to
lay them to heart or make much of them . . . or even, on occasion,
by denying outright that they exist”) and “sick
souls” (which “cannot so swiftly throw off the burden
of the consciousness of evil, but are congenitally fated to
suffer from its presence”). Koestenbaum’s readers
are going to come from just one side of that divide.
then, one of the James’s points is that the sick soul
tends to see things more clearly than the robust cluelessness
of the healthy-minded ever permits. As a gay writer -- and one
who, moreover, was taken to be a girl when he was young, and
told that he looked like Woody Allen as an adult -- Koestenbaum
has a kind of sonar for detecting plumes of humiliation beneath
the surface of ordinary life.
coins an expression to name “the somberness, or deadness,
that appears on the human face when it has ceased to entertain
the possibility that another person exists.” He calls
it the Jim Crow gaze – the look in the eyes of a lynching
party in group photos from the early 20th century, for example.
But racial hatred is secondary to “the willingness to
desubjectify the other person” – or, as Koestenbaum
puts it more sharply, “to treat someone else as garbage.”
What makes this gaze especially horrific is that the person
wearing it can also be smiling. (The soldier giving her thumbs-up
gesture while standing next to naked, hooded prisoners at Abu
Ghraib). The smile “attests to deadness . . . you are
humiliated by the refusal, evident in the aggressor’s
eyes, to see you as sympathetic, to see you as a worthy, equal
and violent degradation is the extreme case. But the dead-eyed
look, the smirk of contempt, are common enough to make humiliation
a kind of background radiation of everyday social existence,
and intensified through digital communication “by virtue
of its impersonality . . . its stealth attack.” An embarrassing
moment in private becomes a humiliating experience forever if
it goes viral on YouTube.
Internet is the highway of humiliation,” Koestenbaum writes.
“Its purpose is to humiliate time, to turn information
(and the pursuit of information) into humiliation.” This
seems overstated, but true. The thought of Google owning everyone’s
search histories is deeply unsettling. The sense of privacy
may die off completely one day, but for now the mass media,
and reality TV most of all, work to document its final twitches
of agony. “Many forms of entertainment harbor this ungenerous
wish: to humiliate the audience and to humiliate the performer,
all of us lowered into the same (supposedly pleasurable) mosh
of humiliation containing no element of confession would be
a nerveless book indeed. Koestenbaum is, like Leiris, a brave
writer. The autobiographical portions of the book are unflinching,
though flinch-inducing. There are certain pages here that, once
read, cannot be unread, including one that involves amputee
porn. No disrespect to amputees intended, and the human capacity
to eroticize is probably boundless; but Koesternbaum's describes
a practice it never would have occurred to me as being possible.
With hindsight, I was completely O.K. with that, but it's too
late to get the image out of my head now.
counts on “shame’s power to undo boundaries between
individuals,” which is also something creativity does.
That phrase comes from Koestenbaum tribute to the late Eve Kosofsky
Sedgwick towards the end of the book. He evokes the memory of
her friendship at least as much as the importance of her foundational
work in queer theory – though on reflection, I’m
not so sure it makes sense to counterpose them. Kosofsky’s
ideas permeate the book; she was, like Koestenbaum, also a poet;
and Humiliation may owe something to A Dialogue
on Love, the most intimate of her writings.
it’s more reckless and disturbing, because the author
plays off of his audience's own recollections of humiliation,
and even with the reader's capacity for disgust. There’s
a kind of crazy grace to Koestenbaum’s writing. He moves
like a matador working the bull into ever greater rage -- then
stepping out of the path of danger in the shortest possible
distance, at the last possible moment, with a flourish.